Three Sisters Loop Backpacking Guide

View of South Sister from Husband Lake - Wowzers

 

Three Sisters Loop Backpacking Guide

If you’re the type of backpacker that’s into big views, lush forests, stunning peaks, and craggy volcanic landscapes (and who’s not!), then you’ll absolutely love the Three Sisters Loop. Here’s a quick guide on how to make the most of your trip. 

The Three Sisters Loop is an iconic 3-6 day backpacking trip set in the Cascade Range among some of Oregon’s prettiest peaks. This 50-mile loop circles the North, Middle, and South Sister volcanoes, providing a fantastic array of diverse terrain. Take this amazing journey and wander through rugged volcanic landscapes complete with expansive pumice fields, pristine melt lakes, quiet old-growth forests, newly recovering burn areas, peaceful wildflower meadows, and glossy obsidian streams. This is truly a trip that cannot be missed!

Highlights

  • Sweeping Volcano Views
  • Diverse Landscapes
  • Gorgeous Lakes & Streams
  • Wildflowers & Forests
  • Well Maintained Trails
  • Fascinating Rock Formations
  • An Array of Excellent Side Trips

Lowlights

  • Crowds
  • Limited Camping Areas
  • Limited Campfire Areas
  • Seasonal Bugs, Snow, and Heat

Dave in Front of South Sister

Best Time to Travel

Late July to October is usually a great time to travel to this area. August and September are particularly good months for this route because of their reliable weather and snow-free trails, but that’s also when the weekend crowds will be the largest. Plan your trip to avoid the crowds if possible.

Early season snow pack can be a limiting factor in this area and late seasons storms can cover trails with snow as well. So make sure to check weather forecasts and snow conditions before heading out on an early or late season trek.

Distance

The length of the inner loop is 46.3 miles, but when you factor a short hike in from a trailhead, your total distance will be around 50 miles. Lava Camp Trailhead (3 miles off the loop), Devils Lake Trailhead (1.5 miles), and Green Lakes Trailhead (2 miles) are common starting points for this trip.

Pacific Crest Trail with North & Middle Sister

Difficulty

This trip is a good fit for intermediate to experienced backpackers. The trails along this route are well maintained and well marked. Trails are also graded with switchbacks to avoid steep ups and downs as much as possible. 

Packing light will definitely help improve your experience while you’re covering miles on this trek. Check out my HD Tutorial Videos and Gear Guide for some great tips on how to comfortably reduce your pack weight.

Elevation

Nature isn’t flat and volcanoes are rugged, so you should still expect some decent climbs along this trek. Most of the climbs are only between 500 and 700 feet and they’re generally not too steep either, but there are a few bigger climbs as well.  Your total elevation gain along this loop will be between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, depending on the side trips you choose to take.

Middle and North Sister from above Camp Lake

Permits

Permits are required for this loop, but you can fill one out at the trailhead when you arrive - except for the Obsidian Trailhead.

The Obsidian trailhead is a limited entry area, which means you’ll need to get a permit if you plan on parking or camping in that part of the loop (you can pass through on the trail without a permit though). This should not be considered a limiting factor if you can’t get a permit for the time you plan to visit. Just use one of the other trailheads and plan to camp outside of the Obsidian limited entry area. There are tons of beautiful places to camp outside the Obsidian limited entry area. 

Regulations

Leave No Trace backpacking is extremely important in this area because it is so popular. Know the rules and follow them to limit your impact.

Camping is limited to established campsites at North and South Matthieu Lakes, Green Lakes, and Moraine Lake. Only camp in designated areas.

No fires are allowed at many of the lakes in this area. This includes Camp, Chambers, Green, Moraine, Sisters Mirror, Eileen, Husband, Golden and others. 

There is currently no camping allowed in the recovering Pole Creek Burn Area, which spans about six miles along the east side of this loop. You can walk through the area, the water sources are still flowing, and the trail is well marked. You just can’t hike off trail or camp there. 

As mentioned in the permits section, a permit is required to park or camp at the Obsidian Limited Entry Area.

There are no specific regulations about bear canisters in this area, but you should still plan to properly store your food. Never feed any wild animals.

South Sister View from Green Lake

Maps & Guides

Side Trips

There are a number of fantastic side trip options along this loop that are highly recommended if you have the time. Among the most popular and beautiful are the trips to Camp Lake, the South Sister Summit, Sisters Mirror Lake, Husband Lake, Eileen Lake, and North Matthieu Lake. These side trips will not disappoint.  

Forrest View - Three Sisters Wilderness 

Water

Water is not scarce along this trek, but it’s not quite as plentiful as in many other Northwest backpacking locations. Plan your route accordingly and check on water conditions before your trip. Bring along a lightweight water filter – see my favorite here – and carry enough water to get you from one sure source to the next.

Food Storage

There are bears in the Three Sisters Wilderness, but seeing them is quite rare. It’s far more likely that chipmunks and mice will get into your food if you leave it unprotected. Bear canisters shouldn’t be considered necessary, but you should still protect your food from all wild animals.

Broken Top view from the Pole Creek Burn Area

Trailheads

The most common trailheads to start this loop hike are listed below. All of them are fantastic places to start this hike. You can’t really go wrong.

Backpacking Gear

We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.

WHAT TO PACK

TENT: We used the Zpacks Duplex tent on this trip. We love its combination of incredibly low weight and livability and that's why it's one of our top picks on our best lightweight backpacking tents list. 

BACKPACK: We used the Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack on this trek. It's lightweight, convenient, comfortable, and make our list of the best lightweight backpacking packs

SLEEPING BAG: We used the Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt on this backpacking trip. It's lightweight, incredibly warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping bags.

SLEEPING PAD: We both used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad on this trip. It's light, comfortable, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.

COOKING SYSTEM: We used the BRS StoveSnow Peak Mini Solo Cookset, and Snow Peak Folding Spoon on this trek, all of which make our top picks gear list and best lightweight stove list

WATER PURIFIER: We used the SteriPEN Ultra as our main purification method on this trip. It's lightweight, works fast, and doesn't require any pumping/squeezing or chemicals. Check out our best water purifiers list for our other top recommendations.

SHOES OR BOOTS: We wore Saucony Peregrine 7 trail runners (men's and women's) on this trail and they were excellent. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before your trip. Here’s why we prefer hiking in trail running shoes: 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking Boots.

HEADLAMP: A small headlamp like the Petzl Actik is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option.

FOOD: When backpacking the Three Sisters Loop you'll have to carry all your food. For some suggestions on common backpacking food options, check out our backpacking food video.

FOOD STORAGE: For this trip, we brought an Ursack, to keep the critters out of our food. There are no food storage requirements for this area, but you should always store your food properly in the backcountry. Bear canisters and Ursacks are the most effective storage methods and the easiest to use.

CLOTHING:

Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Gear list

MAP &  COMPASS:  We used the Map Numbers 621 & 622 – by Green Trail Maps. In addition, we always hike with a compass.

FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We used the .5 Ultralight Kit and added extras, like painkillers and personal medications.

SUN PROTECTION: Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are an absolute must.

POCKET KNIFE: We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife, which came in handy here and there.

OTHER ITEMS:

  • SMALL TOWEL: the Nano pack towel is great.
  • CASH and ID
  • PERMITS
  • PERSONAL TOILETRIES
  • HAND SANITIZER: Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.
  • WET WIPES: These can be useful for cleaning up after hiking.
  • INSECT REPELLANT: At higher elevations insects weren't a problem for us at all. For lower elevations, a 1oz bottle of DEET will do the trick.
  • CAMERA: The Sony RX100 is our go-to camera for lightweight backpacking.

Additional Resources

Three Sisters Wilderness – Outdoor Project. Get pumped up with some beautiful photography and great information about the Three Sisters Wilderness from the Outdoor Project. 

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South Sister from Camp Lake